Abstract: Crisis Response and Damage Control: How a Nonprofit Focused on College Success Responded to Shifts in Student Needs and Front-Line Worker Doubts amid the COVID Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Crisis Response and Damage Control: How a Nonprofit Focused on College Success Responded to Shifts in Student Needs and Front-Line Worker Doubts amid the COVID Pandemic

Friday, January 13, 2023
Desert Sky, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Bridgette Davis, Doctoral Candidate, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: College completion rates remain stratified by socioeconomic status and race in the United States for over forty years. College success coaching has diffused as the consensus intervention among mission-driven nonprofits to support first-generation, low-income (FGLI) and underrepresented and racially minoritized (URM) students and challenge this persistent inequality. This intervention relies on nonprofits operating as third parties to help students navigate institutions of higher education to meet aspirational, developmental, and basic needs. However, the COVID pandemic abruptly reduced the centrality of college as a site in students’ lives and as an institution capable of meeting students’ needs. This case study examines the changes to students’ lives and coaches’ work caused by the COVID pandemic to answer the following question: How does a mission-driven nonprofit respond when pandemic creates a fundamental change to the context of mission and service provision?

Methods: This case study uses a qualitative design with both original and administrative data collected within a college success organization in Chicago. In-depth interviews were conducted with 31 FGLI and URM students, their college success coaches, and organizational leaders during this cohort’s transition from high school to college. Data collection began during May of 2019, coinciding with the cohort’s high school graduation, and continued over 26 months. The COVID pandemic began to affect students’ experience of college and organizational efforts nine months into data collection. Data from more than 120 interviews and 250 hours of observation were analyzed via Dedoose software using a twentieth century coding approach that allowed for the analysis of emergent events and themes that coincided with extant literature.

Findings: Most students relied on college success coaches and the focal organization for immediate financial or technical support in exits from campus, travel, storage, safe transport of their belongings, or stable housing plans in March of 2020. Many students also relied on financial support from the focal organization to continue pursuing academic goals. Coaches and the nonprofit responded to student needs more nimbly than the colleges students were attending. Therefore, the organization’s mission and service technology as a third-party navigator of the inequitable institution of higher education was initially reinforced. However, as immediate crises morphed into long-term shifts in ecological context, students’ needs changed to entirely different resources: food, shelter, employment, and public health supports. Soon, many students and coaches questioned the relevance of college to these needs at all. Here, coaches found themselves at the intersection of student needs and the organization’s focus on students’ aspirational goals. This extended crisis, and the organization’s inflexibility, challenged the alignment and coherence of the organization’s mission and its service technology.

Conclusion: Preliminary studies demonstrate that technical challenges worsened by the COVID pandemic impede nonprofit capacity to meet constituent needs. This study suggests that nonprofit capacity to respond to crises is limited by strained mission coherence amid such change. When a stalwart approach to mission appears to conflict with emergent constituent needs, doubt ensues and threats to internal coherence may create a secondary crisis of constituent engagement and organizational legitimacy.